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Lt Gen Shakti Gurung, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) Writes : 

Myanmar is poised to go to the polls in November this year[1]. The parties in the fray are the Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). An emerging threat this time is from the ethnic groups, which have combined on grounds of ethnicity[2] to contest the elections as united political parties, different to what happened in 2015. Presently, the NLD presently holds 80 percent of the seats in parliament, the ethnic groups 12 percent and the USDP eight percent[3]. 25 percent seats are reserved for the military who are appointed by the Commander-in-Chief. Myanmar being an important neighbour for India, the outcome of the elections would have a significant impact on the Act East policy.

Suu Kyi’s rise to power has been against a strong opposition led by Myanmar’s Tatmadaw, the military. The NLD, under her leadership, came to power after a sweeping victory in the 2015 elections. To the common person Suu Kyi represented a world figure that was destined to take the country places. A noble laureate, she was her father General Aung San’s daughter who had drafted the very first constitution of the country stating that religion and politics cannot go together. Aung San’s constitution was not heeded to following his assassination immediately, thereafter, pushing the country under military rule for the next five decades.

Myanmar’s new constitution was drafted in 2008. The elections that followed were more of a sham, which was boycotted by the NLD, bringing in the first “democratic” government from the USDP in 2011. The next elections held in November 2015 saw the NLD sweeping the polls and Suu Kyi coming to power. Suu Kyi has thereafter attempted to amend the constitution umpteen times in order to reduce the influence of the military in the parliamentary process of the country but has failed. Suu Kyi had recommended a gradual removal of reservation for uniformed men from parliament, reducing from 25 percent to 15 percent after the 2020 elections, ten percent after the 2025 elections and five percent after the 2030 elections. A clear majority of 75 percent against it in the parliament precluded this[4].

China appears keen that the NLD returns to power in November 2020 as another term would mean fructifying of their strategic investments in Myanmar. Since it has invested heavily in Myanmar, the Chinese are unlikely to be passive bystanders during the elections. The China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) has still to take off. The Yunnan province of China is landlocked, and the Chinese eastern ports are too far away to cater for its energy requirements; the shortest is to seek a passage through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean via the CMEC.

Given a choice Suu Kyi would like to have the upper hand over the Chinese in all deals concerning her country. However, there are many issues where she has to turn to them for assistance. Suu Kyi’s first priority has been to unify the country. Of the sixteen insurgent groups eight have not signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that came into effect on 15 October 2015[5]. Myanmar’s ethnic insurgent groups have so far lived a life of complete autonomy under the military regime. Areas known as Special Regions have been designated in which full autonomy excluding health, education, and security, are under control of the concerned insurgent group. To give this life up will need a lot of goading and persuasion.

The non-signatory eight groups are located along the borders with China from whom they are known to draw sustenance in the form of warlike equipment besides monetary and moral support. China has made itself irreplaceable in so far as mediation attempts with these groups are concerned. It is known to use these groups as leverage every time it has to strike a deal with Myanmar.

Suu Kyi is hugely popular with the masses and so is her party. There are various methods at her disposal as State Counsellor that she can use to resolve the grievances of the ethnic groups. For instance, a glaring shortcoming in the existing constitution is the appointment of chief ministers of states. The constitution permits the President of the country who is invariably from the ruling party, to appoint chief ministers irrespective of any local party which may have won the elections in the state[6]. This led to individuals from the NLD being appointed chief ministers in states where they had even lost the elections to a local party candidate. This may have been done deliberately by Suu Kyi to retain central control till the peoples’ representatives were ready to lead. However, it is an anomaly which goes against democratic norms and needs correction. If Suu Kyi amends this, it would put her on a firm footing with the ethnic groups.

Similarly, according special status to remote areas to enable them to get financial aid in the form of grants and loans, providing reservation in government jobs, and development of infrastructure – very akin to what happens in India, are other ways of getting the ethnic groups on board. Myanmar’s remote areas are similar to India’s Northeast and have to be integrated fully with the mainland. If, and when, this integration takes place, China’s relevance in Myanmar’s politics will diminish.

The Tatmadaw which backs the other major political party, the USDP, is known to be fiercely nationalistic and views Chinese assistance as interference in the country’s sovereignty. Till some time back as the world closed its doors on Myanmar, the Tatmadaw had been forced to depend on Chinese assistance to take care of its economy and security. With no one else to turn to, Myanmar had been dumped with the most sub-standard and inferior equipment by China. This had been a constant source of embarrassment for Myanmar, but it had no choice. This view of dependency on China is rapidly changing especially among the uniformed fraternity. The military leadership in Myanmar is now a young and vibrant lot and has come to realise its predicament the hard way.

The Tatmadaw understands that the armed forces are an essential element of national power and pride and needs to be modernised and adapted to changing times. The only way to do it is to look for technology other than Chinese. It has correctly appreciated the value of the long coastline Myanmar is endowed with, and the access it has to the sea and international waterways. If this is utilised judiciously Myanmar can easily be put on the world map. Putting all their eggs in the Chinese basket may not just be the option they would prefer and hence the unstated criticism for everything Chinese.

However, what bothers the Tatmadaw are the Rohingyas. To evict this group has been on its agenda since the 1960s. This negative feeling towards the Rohingyas who are deemed to be Muslims is deep rooted and linked to Buddhist nationalism. This form of nationalism has been in the forefront of Burmese politics and holds sway over a number of decisions taken by the government. Anti-Muslim feelings to save race and religion have been whipped up by an ultra-nationalist leader, Ashin Wirathu. He heads the extreme fringe of the organisation called Ma Ba Tha which opposes the clergy loyal to the government. His political ideology is to oppose Islam, revive Buddhism, and create religious nationalism[7].

Citizenship has been denied to the Rohingyas according to the 1982 Citizenship Act[8]. The 2014 Census too does not include them as an ethnic group of Myanmar[9], thus the Rohingyas are the “Nowhere People”.  Using the cover of the Ma Ba Tha the military has initiated several operations against the Rohingyas. The Ma Ba Tha cadres are able to build up the required national fervour of public support for this. thereby giving a free hand to the Tatmadaw to act against this community.

It is Wirathu’s Ma Ba Tha that the Tatmadaw plans to use to hike support for the USDP in the coming elections. The call for protecting race and religion they hope would play on the sentiments of the people and lend an emotional appeal towards winning the elections.

But it is this Rohingya issue that has unwittingly brought China close to Myanmar, making it virtually indispensable. World forums have accused Myanmar of racial discrimination and genocide against this community, and the Chinese support for Myanmar on this issue has come at a time when it was needed most. China has assured Myanmar full support in tackling this problem as well as even offering to mediate with Bangladesh, if required.

The Myanmar military needs to understand that as long as it continues its ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, it will attract negative world opinion. When this happens, the only country that can come to its rescue is China. The support from China would be with its own set of rules in order to extract its pound of flesh. The logic therefore is to go slow on the Rohingyas to ensure China’s influence recedes.

India too needs to understand this to avoid assisting the Tatmadaw in joint operations against the Rakhine group of insurgents, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the Arakan Army. These groups dominate the areas through which India is constructing the Kaladan Multi Modal Project connecting Kolkata to Sittwe and beyond to Mizoram and can disrupt the already much delayed project. India will have to take a leadership role in resolving the crisis through quiet diplomacy by addressing world bodies in whatever manner and showing no anti-Muslim bias in presenting the Rohingya case. As India shares a border with both Myanmar and Bangladesh, which is bearing the brunt of the crisis, it needs to come forward at attempting to resolve the issue. Through this effort it can have a positive influence in Myanmar politics.

With elections around the corner in Myanmar, India needs to tread cautiously. Aung San Suu Kyi is seen by the world as a democratic leader. This is in keeping with India’s democratic ideals and is well suited to its environment. Myanmar is a member of the BIMSTEC, a regional forum essential for India’s growth and development. It is also a member of the ASEAN, through which India hopes to develop its Act East policy. India should not take sides as both the NLD and Tatmadaw are important. While normal diplomatic relations should continue with the government in power, the powerful Tatmadaw will also have to be kept in good humour through effective and meaningful military diplomacy.


End Notes

[1] Myat Soe,Hein. “Myanmar Elections Likely in November.” Myanmar Times, Myanmar, 28 April 2020.

[2] International Crisis Group, “Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar.” Yangon/Brussels, 06 August 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Yamin Aung, San. “The Untouchable Articles in Myanmar’s Constitution.” The Irrawaddy,Myanmar, 23 march 2020.

[5] Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, Wikipedia.

[6] The Irrawaddy, “Minority Groups weigh in on having Chief Ministers Elected, Not Appointed.” Myanmar, 04 March 2019.

[7] Nyi Nyi Kyaw, “The Return of Ma Ba Tha to the Political Scene in Myanmar.” Myanmar, 20 June 2019.

[8] Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, “Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law and Rohingya.” United Kingdom, December 2014.

[9] BBC, “Myanmar Rohingya : What you need to know about the Crisis.” 23 January 2020.

Lt Gen Shakti Gurung, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd), is a former Military Secretary of the Indian Army. During his 39 years of service he has had extensive experience along the Western and Northern borders and counter terrorism / insurgency operations. He has also been the DA in Myanmar.
Article uploaded on 10-06-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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